One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors is also two plays in one. The action begins with a “hopeless and helpless” old man, identified in the folio as Aegeon, telling his sad life story to Duke Solinus, who himself terms the man “hapless.” Separated from wife and half his household by a “deep-divorcing storm” and sudden shipwreck, Aegeon has spent 33 years without them, a wandering soul, traveling the Aegean Seas for which he seems to have been named. Sentenced to death for landing in Ephesus, he hopes for the most unexpected of miracles to save his life and reunite his family.
In between these first and last scenes, which bookend the play with a tragic-romantic frame, is bumptious comedy. Shakespeare’s most overtly farcical, it is devoted to the younger generation: Aegeon’s two sons, identical twins both named Antipholus. Identities are mistaken. Chaos ensues.
In other words, years before his late-career romances would balance young and old contrapuntally, Shakespeare was already using double plots to memorable if not virtuosic effect.
In fact, this brief play (Shakespeare’s shortest) introduces an astonishingly wide range of themes, each of which would reappear, again and again, throughout the Shakespearean canon. As in Pericles, a man is separated from his family by storm, shipwreck, and happenstance. As in Twelfth Night, a set of twins is split apart and knit back together in ingenious ways, while the romantic rivalry of the doppelgängers anticipates the entwined friendships and jealousies of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The duo of Adriana and Luciana, one forthrightly feminist and one subtly less so, look forward to future pairings such as Beatrice and Hero or Rosalind and Celia. As in Measure for Measure, a Duke whom none dare address by name laments his own helplessness before the harshness of man’s law, and like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, an Italian merchant suffers from a strange melancholy. At one point, a rustic fool dreams he’s been turned into an ass, like Bottom in Midsummer, and elsewhere he recites a long, grotesque description of body parts, like Launce in Two Gents and Grumio in Taming of the Shrew.
These Shakespearean resonances can be partially explained by Shakespeare’s syncretic method, his synthesis of two opposed storytelling traditions. On the one hand, Shakespeare derives his plot from Plautus’s Menaechmi (or “the Menaechmus twins”), an ancient Roman comedy he most likely read as a young boy in school. In these kinds of plays, known as “New Comedy” because Plautus helped to invent it, there is only one plot, usually situated in domestic conflict or confusion. There is only one set, with three doors providing a microcosm of society. The location is usually suburban, on a road halfway between the city and the port, and the ending is always a happy one, with boy and girl getting each other or a social group coming together. Stakes typically aren’t life and death, and special effects are kept to a minimum, the Romans being a practical people. This ought to sound familiar, as it is the basis for nearly all of situation comedy, from The Honeymooners and All in the Family to modern-day examples such as Friends and The Office. (One can even draw a line from Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus through Ralph Kramden and Archie Bunker to Joey Tribbiani and Dwight Schrute, braggart warriors all.)
On the other hand, Shakespeare also seems to have something else in mind, adding a second layer to the play that threatens to warp the physical unities of time and space while opening up a new and oddly questing spirit in the dramaturgy. For one thing, by adding the Dromios, a second set of twin servants to the Antipholi, Shakespeare doubles the possible confusions in an already addled play. Shakespeare also shifts the scene to the frontiers of the European imagination, trading Plautus’s provincial Epidamnum for Ephesus, described in Menaechmi as Graeciamque exoticam, i.e. “farthest Greece.”
Shakespeare also seems to have latched onto the dramatic potential latent in twins. Like characters that are “borne about invisible,” as Adriana says, twins can seem to be in two places at the same time, appearing to do and then undo things, like a metaphysical or magical principle made flesh. In an episode lifted from another Plautine play, the tragicomic Amphitryon, one twin is locked outside his house as his dinner is served to his invisible other within. It is a scene that plays in part like comic nightmare, a version of going to school without any of your clothes on, a staging of the complete loss of self.
In other words, the Antipholus twins introduce Shakespeare’s fascination with identity, and the creeping suspicion that it may be more mutable than we think. Antipholus of Syracuse speaks of being “like a drop of water, / That in the ocean seeks another drop.” The image of waterdrops in the ocean is repeated by all the main characters, a leitmotif that echoes the painful separations of Aegeon’s shipwreck story. Meeting Luciana, Antipholus asks her to complete him. “Are you a god? Would you create me anew?”
Antipholus of Ephesus, meanwhile, is described in the Folio as Antipholus Erotes, or “the wandering twin.” The name comes from the Latin errare, the source for the “errors” of the play’s title, but also suggesting the manner in which we are all wanderers on a spiritual or existential quest. All of the main characters in the play seem to be missing something, a husband who returns their love, a brother who helps to share the load, a family that fills the void.
The link between comedy and the sacred was established earlier in the Renaissance by Dante’s Divine Comedy, a vulgar (i.e. non-Latin) and autobiographical verse poem which radically reinterpreted the happy ending of classical comedy in the light of man’s spiritual salvation, the progression from inferno through purgatory to paradise. Though scholars disagree on precisely whether Shakespeare read him, many have noted Dantean echoes in the early plays, particularly, as T.S. Eliot points out, in Clarence’s dream from Richard the Third. But Shakespeare was clearly participating in the same cultural shift, one that transfigured the literal, practical stuff of mistaken-identity comedy to something more miraculous, an early modern understanding of the soul’s shaky place in relation to the wide ocean of the universe.
If Shakespeare is Dantean, he is also Rabelaisian, as the Pantagruel-like grotesques of the Dromios amply illustrate, the lower comic plot burlesquing the main action with its asses’ heads and comparisons of Nell’s parts to islands in the world. In Shakespeare’s hands, the literal stuff of Plautine comedy starts to become unfathomably transformed, taking on the hues of the tragicomedy, problem comedy, and romances that he would later write.
Comedy of Errors, then, is not merely an adaptation of Plautus’s Menaechmi. Rather, it is more accurate to say that it is the first of many Renaissance metamorphoses, the prototype of a play that Shakespeare would prove unable to stop rewriting. He may have started out imitating the ancient Romans, but this young and enterprising bard from Avon was already writing a kind of play that had never been seen before onstage. Shakespeare was already Shakespeare.